Ahead of spring break, State Dept issues travel alert for Mexico border

Travel alert places emphasis on a few hyper-violent cities and states near the Mexico border. It comes as many US college students and families are making travel plans for spring break.

The US State Department this week reissued its travel alert for Mexico. It places particular emphasis on a few hyper-violent border cities.

The US State Department this week reissued its travel alert for Mexico, despite mounting evidence that – drug-gang beheadings and Al Capone-style massacres aside – America’s southern neighbor is actually getting safer.

The alert comes just as many US college students and families are making travel plans for spring break.

It places particular emphasis on a few hyper-violent border cities and states, and it keeps Mexico on a short list of five countries where the United States government says that recent events underscore a need for Americans to exercise extreme caution when visiting. The other four are India, Malaysia, Niger, and the Philippines.

The travel alert is less encompassing than a travel warning. In the Western Hemisphere, only earthquake-ravaged Haiti and Colombia – site of Latin America’s last insurgent war – merit the State Department’s warning list.

In the case of Mexico, the new travel alert updates the previous semiannual advisory issued last August. It comes out just as Mexican officials have been laboring to demonstrate improved security in comparison with past years – for foreign tourists and Mexican citizens alike.

Mexico’s homicide rate has fallen steadily from the highs it reached in the late 1990s, according to both Mexico’s Department of Public Safety and the Citizens’ Institute for Crime Studies, an independent nongovernmental organization in Mexico City. By the institute’s findings, Mexico fares better in terms of security than many other Latin American countries including Brazil, Venezuela, and El Salvador. And in terms of large cities, Mexico City’s crime rate is on a par with that of Los Angeles.

Still, services like the State Department’s travel alerts are all about perceptions, says Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert who chairs the department of international studies at the University of Miami. “And when it comes to perceptions,” he adds, “what comes to mind in the case of Mexico are bloody drug wars and gangland massacres with innocent bystanders getting caught in the cross-fire.”

The Mexico alert, issued Monday, calls particular attention to drug-related violence in the states of Michoacán, Durango, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, and it advises US citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to those areas. In December and January, four US citizens were killed in Gómez Palacio, Durango.

The alert also emphasizes the acute violence of Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.3 million people contiguous with El Paso, Texas. The northern Chihuahuan city’s more than 2,600 murders in 2009 made it one of the world’s deadliest places. Such violence is what leads to the Mexico travel alert – even though Professor Bagley says that Mexico overall “paints a very different picture.”

“The perception is that Mexico is much more dangerous than ever before because of the drug violence,” he adds. “But the reality that the great majority of tourists confront is really quite different.”

The Mexican government has good reason to want to reverse the perceptions of a dangerous country – and to grumble about the economic impact of the US travel alert. Mexico is in a deep recession, made worse by an estimated 20 percent drop in tourism last year.

The renewed travel alert will not help. “Mexico is hurting,” says Bagley, “so to have this insult added to the existing injury is a major blow.”

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